Farm Fresh to Me

You may or may not have noticed that I never really concluded my dinner table tournament. Despite my claim to be good at maintaining commitments and projects, I definitely stopped well short of goal to cover all of the options. I did, however, make it slightly further than my blog would indicate because Julie and I did end up trying a CSA about 6 months ago, so here’s my extremely belated post about it.

Farm Fresh to You

Farm Fresh to You is a community supported agriculture provider. The idea is that consumers can cut out the grocery store middleman and get produce directly from local farms. There are various schemes of how it works, but the basic setup is that I, as a consumer, pay a farm, and they send me shipments of whatever they’re current growing on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Many people have opinions about the benefits or issues with this, but I was interested in trying it primarily for 2 reasons. First, I would get better, fresher, riper produce. The story goes that produce at the grocery store has to be picked early so that it will not rot en-route before getting to the consumer. Since CSAs cut out that step, the produce can be picked at perfect ripeness. Second, I would get different stuff. I like the novelty of eating, cooking, and cooking with different things. When I go grocery shopping, I will naturally tend to buy produce that I know how to use and how to cook with. With a CSA, I would be forced to use whatever showed up and, as a consequence, try new things.

We ended up signing up at a booth during a community event in downtown Mountain View. Although I could tell that they guy was going through his sales shtick, I felt okay going along since we intended to try a CSA anyways. He got us a discount for our first couple boxes, and in the end, each bi-weekly shipment was somewhere in the range of $30-40.

Delivery

Our box showed up early Friday morning, so we opened it up over breakfast and discussed our options.

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The mix included a few different types of fruit, 2 types of peppers, 2 types of grapes, some greens, tomatillos, and a few other items I can’t identify several months later. Overall, we were quite satisfied with the variety and set about planning how to use everything.

Preparation

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Prior to that day, I could not have told you what was in green salsa. Maybe just green bell peppers? It turns out that green salsa is mostly just tomatillo with something spicy (peppers) in it. We found a recipe for green salsa, and it turned out great. The fresh salsa listed on the same page was not good. I would not recommend that. But the roasted salsa was good, and I definitely learned why I should be less impressed with the salsa options at Mexican restaurants.

The peppers ended up as fajita vegetables for fajita night.

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and we also roasted and sauteed the other vegetables for another meal.

I'm pretty sure we got those potatoes in the box, too. I forgot about those, I think.
I’m pretty sure we got those potatoes in the box, too. I forgot about those, I think.

The butter lettuce ended up as part of our salads. I sadly realized a long time ago that I didn’t know how to make good salads. I think I leaned too much on vegetables (all bitter) without balancing it out. With Julie’s guidance, we stepped up our salad with apple, dried cranberries, blue cheese, and candied nuts.

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The Followup

Given just the text above and the pictures, you might have been led to believe that we had a good experience with it. You would be correct. We liked the CSA enough that we got another 4-5 boxes.

Unfortunately, I don’t think a box ever went that well again. We got the first box on a signup promotion, so subsequent boxes ended up with much less in them. We also noticed that they often were filled with less exciting staples, like onions and green lettuce, which didn’t really taste any better to us than what we got at the grocery store. Because it was just produce, we ended up having to go to the grocery store anyways to fill out our meals for a week.

The final realization, however, came when I went shopping the day after receiving a box and seeing a few of the more unusual items at the Milk Pail. I walked through the store and tallied up the cost of buying an equivalent amount and realized that I would come out far ahead doing my own shopping–which I do anyways. I immediately added a task for myself to cancel my subscription, which took probably another month because I had to call in during work hours to do it, and I’m bad at completing tasks that require phone calls during work hours.

Overall

I had a good experience with Farm Fresh to You. I have realized that I enjoy the process of cooking, and a CSA mostly lets me do that. However, I think I am mostly spoiled to have the Milk Pail just down the street from me, where I can get cheap, local, fresh produce. In the end, the CSA just provided me the convenience of delivering a few of the same items at a premium, and that wasn’t worth it to me.

Here are my rankings:

  1. Blue Apron
  2. Farm Fresh to You (CSA)
  3. HelloFresh
  4. Munchery
  5. Plated

You may be surprised to see the CSA not first despite it being the closest to my normal pattern. Were normal home cooking not an option, it would be first, but I think that I would be more likely to mix Blue Apron into my meals than the CSA.

There’s a chance I will continue the Dinner Table Tournament in the future, but in the spirit of sunsetting responsibilities for my New Year’s Hopes, I think I will declare it done. I will probably continue to blog about food, but it will likely be in a far less structured format.

This post is part of the Dinner Table Tournament where I pull Julie along my need for novel experiences in “staying in” dinner options to generate blog content. I have not been compensated by Farm Fresh to You for this in any way for this post. Yet.

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving: 2015 edition

Long time readers of almost exactly 1 year may remember that I cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my company a week or 2 before actual Thanksgiving. It is probably the biggest event that I host each year, and I hopefully am learning more each time about how to do it better.

Continuing my tradition of doing different ethnic cuisines, I did a Cajun Thanksgiving this year with a Creole spice mix over the turkey and a variety of spicy and rich dishes. Fortunately, I am the only person on the team from the south, so there weren’t many critical opinions in the crowd.

Overall, I think the food was fine. The turkey was overcooked, and the mashed potatoes were very salty (even after cutting down the salt from the recipe). Because Cajun is a real American cuisine, it already has Thanksgiving fare that is not so dissimilar from a traditional Thanksgiving.

The biggest factor, however, was the attendance. Last year, we had somewhere just shy of 10 people attend. This year, our 2 bedroom place hosted a total of 20 hungry people. This year, more significant others attended, and we also invited recent interns back. The team has also been growing, and all of this ballooned the headcount, expectations, and required preparation.

Overall, I think we managed to do well. Despite running out of most dishes, the guests seemed to be well-fed and enjoyed the food. Everyone seemed to enjoy the company, and the mix of SOs and former Zanbato employees made it a more special event than another meal with the people we spend 40+ hours with a week.

Here were a few of the things I learned and/or felt worked well with the party this year:

1. Create a clear, smooth welcome experience.

First impressions between people are important, and first impressions about a party also set the tone for the social experience the rest of the night. In the past, I have been bouncing back and forth between the door and the kitchen hollering out instructions while trying to dash back to my gravy. This year, I wrote up a series of signs directing guests to come right in at the front door, where to put their bags and jackets, and where to find drinks and appetizers.

2. In a small space, configure and reconfigure to make all of the space multi-functional.

With 20 people in a few hundred square feet (including my kitchen), we fit the normal dining table, an additional folding table, and a few couches around a coffee table for eating. I knew I wanted to have everyone standing and mingling during the appetizer hour, so we pushed all of the tables back against the walls and blocked out the chairs so that people couldn’t really settle in. This created a more open, standing space for people to float around and get settled.

When we were ready to serve, everyone was happy to help and rearrange furniture for dining. We cleaned just enough counter space in the kitchen to serve and moved the appetizers and beverages back off of the tables. Then, everyone found a seat to enjoy their meal.

We did find 2 things to improve. First, Julie pointed out that the appetizers were hard to get to because people were standing in front of them. They ended up being placed somewhat int he corner, so next time, I would place them more centrally. Second, I would have encouraged everyone to switch seats between dinner and dessert for more mingling.

3. To feed more people, multiply recipes instead of making more dishes.

Overall, the cooking process went very smoothly. This year, I went digital with my chart to plan out cooking, and we stuck with it. I conscripted my coworker Conrad to help cook through the last push, and we stayed on the schedule very well.

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Even so, cooking did take quite awhile between the previous evening and the day of. Seeing how we ran out of most everything, I think people would have been just as happy with having 2-3 fewer dishes and just doubling the recipes. That would have saved me a ton of work as well.

4. Don’t worry too much about the food.

Maybe people are just being polite, but I have gotten a lot of appreciation for the food despite my own opinion about the quality of the cooking. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t critical: I just think there is generally enough goodwill and merriment in the atmosphere that the food itself just doesn’t matter so much.

So whether the food is good or bad or too much or too little, I think the party depends more on the other details of the environment and the company present than the food itself. The time spent on the food will always be disproportionately high to its importance, and it is much harder to improvise than, say, a guest list.

Anyways, we’re headed into the holiday season now, so best of luck to all hosts. Don’t worry too much about the food, and enjoy the company!

Saying Hello to HelloFresh

This past weekend, I was talking with my friend Jenni about a personality trait that affects how people approach food: novelty seeking. Some people enjoy novelty for its own sake; others find comfort in known pleasures. Would you rather try out that new restaurant you don’t know anything about, or would you rather go back to that restaurant you love? Same question goes for cooking.

It is a spectrum, and we all have moments in both directions, but I think Julie and I tend to be novelty seekers. I have lamented to many friends recently about how I rarely go back to my favorite ramen place in town: I would rather go to a new restaurant in the same area rather than go back to the same place. The novelty in itself is worth a try.

Whenever we go out to eat, Julie and I always agree on the 2 things we’re going to order, then switch half way through the meal. Sometimes one of us ordered something better than the other, but we are almost always glad to have tried both. And if you set a dessert bar in front of me, I will try to cut the smallest piece of everything so I can taste every different things I can.

I would probably vary my cooking just as much if it wasn’t so much work. The ease of pointing at a different menu item or walking one restaurant over certainly encourages novelty, and that is hard to replicate at home. Hopefully the Dinner Table Tournament brings about that same ease.

HelloFresh

HelloFresh is a service that ships out boxes of measured ingredients to prepare a series of dinner menus with recipes included. By default, they provide 2 broad options for vegetarians or not, but you can customize your order week to week depending on what they have available. You order by the meal for roughly $10 each with no additional tax or tip.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 2.53.03 PM Continue reading “Saying Hello to HelloFresh”

A Typical Week of Home Cooking

Going through the Dinner Table Tournament, I have discovered many different ways to cook. The process of writing and documenting those different services changed the way I thought about the cooking experience. To put it on an even comparison against our typical routine, I decided to write up what a typical week of cooking looks like.

Home Cooking: Take about a couple hundred

Julie and I usually start our weekly meal planning on Sunday morning over brunch. That way, we can go grocery shopping that afternoon. Brunch is typically eggs (scrambled, omelet, soft boiled, fried, poached, or whatever Julie is in the mood for), toasted leftover whole wheat sandwich bread ends, and fruit. We had guests over on Friday, so we substituted in strawberry long-cake and salad greens. Continue reading “A Typical Week of Home Cooking”

Donning a Blue Apron

I don’t really get calories. Every time I go to In-n-Out, I am stuck by the fact that the french fries have more calories than the burger and that both are far below that of the milkshake. Since I already know what I’m going to get, I stare at the calorie counts on the menu and rationalize all of the sides by going for a grilled cheese.

I have 2 big disconnects with understanding calories. First, calories don’t always match fullness or centrality in a meal. I assume that they are strongly correlated, but it turns out that those bags of chips can add up, while juice goes right through my system. Second, I still don’t get how non-meat food catches up to meat in calories. I always kind of figured that meat was the heavy-hitter, but peanut butter or pasta don’t seem so offensive.

I remember hearing awhile back that calorie counts on New York menus wasn’t decreasing consumption, though I think that it might be missing the long-term effect. Standing in line at In-n-Out, I can’t make sense of the calorie counts nor can I override my momentary desire for particular menu items. I do, however, now have a better sense for how many calories go into an entire meal: before seeing calorie counts on Munchery/Plated/Blue Apron menu items, I had no idea how many calories should be in dinner. That allows me to compare that to the snacks or other meal options I have. I may not be good at judging calories, but at least I know I’m bad at it and think about my choices along the way.

Blue Apron: Take 1

Blue Apron ships you weekly, insulated boxes full of raw ingredients for a few different meals. You can choose how many and what types of dishes you want (veggie, beef, fish, poultry, etc) as well as your preferred delivery days. The website is easy enough to use and of course features very attractive food photography. Continue reading “Donning a Blue Apron”

Still Munching

Growing up, my family ate everything, well, family style. All meals, whether stir-fry or barbecue, came out in serving dishes on the table. Even ostensibly single serving meals like hamburgers or baked potatoes were usually assembled away from the table from the big stack of food and brought over. Even these days, Julie and I often cook family style between the two of us. Portion sizes for 2 aren’t too hard to figure out, though we will often leave a half-serving of food behind for tupperware.

As such, one great contrast in restaurant food is getting a complete plate, with grains, veggies, and meat all at different clock positions. With a full plate in front of me, I feel compelled to finish as much of it as possible or to give up early for a doggie bag. There’s something about having everything already on my plate that pushes me to eat a little more, where seeing an equal portion in the serving dish doesn’t. The strange world of individual servings at home adds an element of restaurant fanciness, but also makes me overeat slightly more than I normally would.

Munchery: Take 2

Our meal schedule has been somewhat erratic for the past month, so Julie and I couldn’t commit to any of the full-week meal options recently. Despite lapsing on that, we were able to order Munchery to fill in an unusual day, and it was quite convenient. Even without considering the number of meals, it was much more convenient because we ordered our meals for the next day, while Plated needed to be ordered several days in advance. Continue reading “Still Munching”

Getting dinner Plated

Targeted ads seem to work pretty well these days. After publishing my blog post about Munchery, I started regularly getting ads for Plated on Facebook. They were quite conspicuous on my newsfeed with a list of friends who had also liked Plated.

I guess it worked, however, because I ended up using the promotion via Facebook to use Plated. The discount was worth it, but I do feel dirty about it because according to the marketing numbers, I just validated advertising my Facebook feed. Yikes.

Plated: Take 1

Plated is a service that creates menus and delivers ingredients to your home for exactly those meals. You can prepare the meal basically from scratch without having to find recipes or do any grocery shopping. Continue reading “Getting dinner Plated”

Introducing the Dinner Table Tournament

table-147314_640Long ago, humans discovered fire and began to cook their food. Not soon after, they began to complain about eating the food cooked yesterday and why they couldn’t go out and hunt or forage for new food instead.

Fast forward to today, and not much has changed. Basically, there are 2 options: going out or staying in. I grew up in a “staying in” household, where my mom cooked everyday except for leftovers. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the recipe), my mom is not around to provide for me on a daily basis. On the other hand, the options for staying in have changed dramatically. No longer are we restricted to cooking or ordering pizza delivery. We can:

  • shop for groceries and cook dinner like always
  • skip shopping for groceries and have groceries delivered
  • skip coming up with a grocery list and have ingredients for a meal prepackaged with a recipe
  • skip the cooking and have an equivalent to a home meal delivered
  • skip the delivery and eat in someone else’s home
  • skip the “home meal” restriction and order delivery from a restaurant
  • skip talking to the restaurant and order through a delivery service

I bet some cavemen would have literally killed to get their meals like that.

I tend to believe that the old ways are the best ways and try to cook more often than not. Despite it just being myself and Julie, I believe in the value of family dinners and cooking at home. We spend time working together by cooking. I think we tend to make more nutritious meals. Meals around the dinner table are a time for bonding and tradition.

But I can understand why many people don’t do it. Cooking requires planning when our lives seem more unpredictable than ever. It takes a long time to prepare, eat, and clean up when we don’t have enough time anyways. Most of us don’t cook well, and almost all of us don’t cook restaurant-quality food. Instead, we go out to eat, or pick up fast food, or microwave a TV dinner.

We make compromises in our daily lives, and new “staying in” options can help to find that balance. Although I come into this with strong biases towards cooking, I also am an adventurous eater and need ways to generate blog content. Therefore, I (and by extension and some duress, Julie) will embark on a months long hunt through many dinner acquisition services to find out what works and what doesn’t. We will judge our meals and experiences and share those thoughts on this blog. Here are some of the criteria we will be considering:

  1. Nutrition. Did the meal look balanced? Is this a sustainable diet?
  2. Taste. Did it taste good? Would I eat this every day?
  3. Convenience. How was the experience of getting and preparing the food? Does it generally fit into my life?
  4. Experience. Overall, how was dinner? Did it address the peripheral, related aspects of a home dinner?

Julie and I have discussed many options so far (and we’re open to more suggestions, but so far, we have come up with CSA, Instacart, Plated, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Munchery, delivery, DoorDash, and EatWith. We are open to any other suggestions as well

To spice up our meals, I want to put out an open invitation for dinner guests. I would be worried about regularly having friends try our usual dinners, but this series of experiments seems like a perfect opportunity to share the experience. To fulfill such a role, the qualifications are:

  1. actually knowing Julie or me
  2. transporting yourself to be physically, preferably punctually present at our place
  3. informing us of any dietary restrictions or strong preferences you might have
  4. helping with meal preparation as necessary for the selected service
  5. contributing opinions freely to be shared in future blog posts

Note that the requirements do not include paying for your meal. As guests, we will be providing for your meal.

Along the way, I may provide some musings about food, cooking, hosting, or other related topics. Stay tuned, and let me know via any contact method if you wish to join us for dinner. Even you lurkers who I have barely talked to in my life: you’re all welcome!

My Lessons from Hosting Thanksgiving

You might be wondering how I can post about having hosted Thanksgiving in the middle of November. Although it is true that I am Canadian, that isn’t the reason this time. Actually, Zanbato has an annual tradition of holding a team Thanksgiving a week or two before actual Thanksgiving, where we can share (hopefully) delicious food and get an early start on the holiday season feeling.

Last year, I did an ethnic twist and made it a Chinese Thanksgiving, with the turkey cooked in the style of Peking duck and with various Asian-themed sides. This year, I did a Tex-Mex Thanksgiving, and I dare say it went quite well. Here are pictures of how the food turned out (recipes available on foodmarks):

Overall, I think most of the dishes came out quite well. The pecan pie had some baking issues but ended up tasting fine. As gratifying as that is, however, I think the best part of the experience for me was how smoothly it went. In years past, I have been frantically cooking up to the last minute with pots and pans and kitchen tools scattered around my kitchen. This year, I cooked at a leisurely pace and was able to pop in and out of the kitchen when guests arrived. I ended up only needing Julie’s help for the last 15 minutes or so, and everything came out on-time. Here is what I think the difference was:

1. I picked recipes that that don’t need to be done right before serving.

A lot of dishes must be served fresh, or they lose their texture or temperature or flavor. When I picked the dishes, I deliberately picked dishes that could be done ahead of time so I didn’t need to do 5 things right before serving dinner. I think it was also important to do desserts that didn’t need prep, either. Both the pecan pie and flan basically needed to be paired with a serving utensil, and they were ready.

2. I threw in a couple gimme recipes as well.

At some point, I realized that it wasn’t worth putting a lot of work into baking things for most people. Most people don’t really care if you spent hours putting together a layer cake or swirling a batter in a certain way: they’re usually just happy that you did something homemade. This probably extends to cooking in general, so I put queso on the list as a great but very easy appetizer dip and salad. These buff out the menu without significant work.

3. I planned out my oven and stove usage.

It’s a bad surprise to find out that you need your veggies at 400 F and dessert at 350 F at the same time in the oven, or that you have to use the big saute pan for two things. I charted out my oven usage by the half-hour to make sure that I could get everything done, with some wiggle room as well

4. I setup my place during downtime.

Were I better prepared, the furniture, cleanup, and flatware would have been done ahead of time. I wasn’t that prepared, but I did manage to knock out a lot of that while the turkey was cooking. Although most of my attention is on the food, a good dinner party should have a good environment as well.

5. I took notes from last year.

I pulled up my recipes from last year to see approximately how much food I made for how many people, and I went over the mistakes from last time. There was a lot to learn.

Overall, I would say that the big takeaway here is: don’t leave anything to the last minute. Having a plan is good. Having experience to know what needs to be planned is better. With that in mind, I was able to put together a good experience for my guests without getting frazzled myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if this advice doesn’t really extend much past myself or perhaps is too obvious, but hopefully I’ll continue to improve as a Thanksgiving host in the coming years!

The Sounds and Sights of Cheap Dim Sum

(Author’s note:I wrote this Sunday night)

Good dim sum should come in large, cheap portions. In my mind, you need real, Chinese people making the food, and if they can stay in business with low prices, it means that that the food itself is really good and that they aren’t wasting money on decor and American standards of cleanliness.

New Hwong Kok in Milpitas fits this description. My friend Brain referred it to me, and with the $6 dim sum lunch special equivalent to 3 or 4 items at sit-down dim sum, I thin it’s great. You get the food in a takeout container, there are only 2 tables, and the service is neither good nor bad: it’s simply a necessity in executing a financial transaction involving delicious food.

When I stepped outside this morning to grab dim sum, I stopped to consider whether I wanted to bring my water bottle or not. I might want it in the car, but the main benefit would be to eat there. It was unlikely I would get a table, but if I did, my food would be 20 minutes warmer. I wouldn’t eat dim sum from the comfort of my own kitchen table, but that seemed acceptable.

It ended up being the right call. When I finished paying and turned to leave, I saw that the old Chinese lady at one of the tables had left, so I swooped down and sat in the dinky shop. To my left, a row of fridge cases cooled ingredients and bulk packaged buns, which I suspect were repackaged leftovers from the previous day. In front of me, a mother (or grandmother: don’t tell me you can tell the difference with non-ancient Asian women) was trying to get her rambunctious son, sitting across her at the table, to finish his meal. To my right, a steady line of 5 or 6 people in 2 or 3 parties inched towards being served. Beside them were the display cases of buns and stacks of metal steamers of dumplings.

I ate my food and watched and listened to the people passing through. I heard clutches of Mandarin in orders, and I heard even more Cantonese that I could only occasionally understand. My Cantonese comprehension is at an awkwardly smug level: I can legitimately say that I can’t speak at all and can only understand some of what my grandparents say, so I am justifiably humble. I know enough random food words, however, to randomly bust out translations to show off. I rarely encounter concentrated Chinese groups these days, yet I strangely feel at ease despite not understanding most of the situation.

As I ate, I realized that the familiarity wasn’t strange: how rarely I encounter these situations was strange. The Bay Area has a solid Chinese population, but I don’t interact with it much. Had I pulled out my phone to browse reddit while eating, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to the Chinese boy running around the shop with a lightsaber tucked in the back of his shirt. Had I not brought my water bottle, I would have gone home to eat and missed a 3 year old Chinese girl clearly apprehensive of an old Chinese lady introduced as an “aunt” by her mom. And had I decided just to stay home and have eggs and toast for breakfast, I couldn’t listen in to an apparently impossible explanation of how the customer wants not 1, but orders of the egg noodles.

I have so many ways to avoid interacting with or even just noticing my environment, my neighbors, and generally the world around me. When I’m washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or doing other mindless tasks, I feel compelled to play a podcast to absorb my higher-level thoughts. When I do get outside, I often look down at the sidewalk or road before me and daydream. I miss out on the unique houses on my commute or the soccer game in the park. And perhaps the greatest struggle is even getting outside by convincing myself that the stimulation of the outside world is more valuable than working on a side project at home or catching up on TV.

So I have recently tried hard to be zen-like and empty my mind. On my drive to New Hwong Kok this morning, I turned off the radio and just enjoyed the beautiful day (and watched the traffic, of course). I brought my journal to the dinner table to write while eating dinner, then decided to open the window and just listen to the birds chirping and children playing in the park.

Maybe I can squeeze my daily Duolingo into dinner and attack my TODO list more efficiently. Maybe sitting at New Hwong Kok could have been an utterly boring and soul-sucking experience. But for now, I need the chance to not absorb my attention, not to focus on a virtual world, not to turn inwards on my thoughts. Instead, I need to just take in the world around one, one thing at a time.